WASHINGTON — When Rep. Gabrielle Giffords found herself targeted for defeat last year with a map showing a rifle's crosshairs over her district, she worried it might incite violence.
"When people do that, they've got to realize there's consequences to that action," she said, after Sarah Palin used the crosshairs to tell her followers of 20 House Democrats who should be defeated.
There's no evidence that Palin's ad contributed to a gunman's decision Saturday to shoot Giffords in a rampage that killed six bystanders and left her gravely wounded with a brain injury. But the shooting is sparking an intense debate over whether incendiary political talk across the country — punctuated with references to guns and the blood of slain politicians — is a real danger, or merely vivid political rhetoric.
Many liberals say it's definitely dangerous. They say it fuels anger and could help push some who seethe with rage over the line into violence.
Many conservatives say it's just talk, and that any attempt to blame them for Giffords' shooting is a cynical attempt to exploit a tragedy for political gain.
This much is clear: Images of bloody violence have been rising in political debate in recent years, and experts say that can find a ready audience among the mentally unbalanced.
"Paranoia is the most political of mental illnesses. Paranoids need enemies, and politics is full of enemies," said Jerrold Post, the director of the Political Psychology program at George Washington University and the author of the book, "Political Paranoia."
While most people will perceive even extreme rhetoric as within the bounds of acceptable discourse, he said, a few will hear the message differently.
"They're metaphors. But when you're sending out the message, it's going to hit a heterogeneous audience. Some will take it literally," he said. "It was only a matter of time before something like this happened."
Always ripe with talk of threats and reprisals, the tone of American political debate turned uglier in the past decade.
The left raged against George W. Bush, hanging him in effigy, depicting him being guillotined and showing him in one movie being assassinated.
After the election of a Democratic Congress in 2006 and President Barack Obama in 2008, the right frequently invoked guns and violence to stir opposition.
In March 2009, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., suggested armed revolution to fight a proposed energy bill in Congress.
"I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax, because we need to fight back," she said.
In August 2009, a man carrying an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle joined protesters outside an Obama event in Phoenix.
The same month, another man showed up outside an Obama event in Portsmouth, N.H., with a handgun holstered to his side. The man, William Kostric, later told CNN, the "tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time by the blood of tyrants and patriots." It was a reference to a Thomas Jefferson quote often cited at anti-government rallies.
In January 2010, Sharron Angle, a Republican Senate candidate opposing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada, also suggested armed opposition to the government.
"You know, our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason, and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government," she said. The Second Amendment assures people the right to bear arms.
"And in fact Thomas Jefferson said, it's good for a country to have a revolution every 20 years. I hope that's not where we're going, but, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying, my goodness, what can we do to turn this country around? I'll tell you, the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out."
When a tax protester flew a plane into a Texas building housing the Internal Revenue Service last February, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, empathized with anger at the IRS.
"It's sad the incident in Texas happened, but by the same token, it's an agency that is unnecessary. And when the day comes when that is over and we abolish the IRS, it's going to be a happy day for America.''
Last March, Palin used the crosshairs on a map to show which 20 Democrats — including Giffords — she wanted defeated.
On another occasion last year, Palin again used a gun image to urge opposition to Democrats. "Don't retreat, RELOAD" she said on her Twitter account.
In July, conservative Florida talk show host Joyce Kaufman told a Tea Party rally that, "If ballots don't work, bullets will." Republican Allan West named her to be his chief of staff when he was elected to Congress in November. He fired her after a video of her remarks on the Fourth of July became public.
When West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, found himself in an unexpectedly close race to succeed the late Sen. Robert Byrd, he aimed a rifle at a copy of the cap-and-trade bill in an effort to bolster his pro-gun and pro-coal credentials in a conservative state Obama lost by a wide margin.
To others, such images and speech crossed the line.
Clarence Dupnik, the Democratic sheriff of Pima County, Ariz., where Saturday's shooting occurred, blamed toxic political rhetoric for feeding the kind of hatred that might have spawned the attack.
"When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government . . ." he said. "The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on this country is getting to be outrageous, and unfortunately Arizona has become sort of the capital. We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry."
"Words do have consequences," said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., on Fox News Sunday. "The vitriol has gotten so elevated until people feel emboldened by this . . . and people who are less than stable. . . . They go out and do things that all of us pay a great price for."
Conservatives said anti-government talk, even if laced with references to violence, played no role in Saturday's shootings and that the accused gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, was an anti-social loner.
Freshman Republican Rep. Vicky Hartzler of Missouri, elected last fall with tea party backing, said no changes in security procedures for members of Congress are needed.
"This is an isolated incident by a deranged person similar to other tragic shootings at post offices, schools, places of work," she said. "I don't believe extra security measures are warranted, nor that political rhetoric had anything to do with it."
Keith Appell, a conservative strategist, said in a statement: "Some in the media have implicated conservatives, the tea party, talk-radio, Republicans, etc., by extension in yesterday's shooting. This is insidious, dishonest, and divorced from reality."
Judson Phillips, a founder of one tea party group, the Tea Party Nation, accused the left of trying to capitalize on the tragedy, saying that's what former President Bill Clinton did after anti-government terrorists blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City.
"While we need to take a moment to extend our sympathies to the families of those who died," Phillips said, "we cannot allow the hard left to do what it tried to do in 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing."
(David Goldstein contributed to this article.)
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